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A Pollyanna wish for future theater

By Joy Virata, The Philippine STAR Published Aug 07, 2023 5:00 am

Perhaps there never has been a generation gap as wide as that which now exists between me and the present generation of theater lovers.

Having been nurtured from the ‘60s up to the demise of theater due to the COVID-19 pandemic on Rep’s (Repertory Philippines) brand of Broadway fare, with all its “bells and whistles” (as director and producer Toff de Venecia once put it to me), I never could understand why the millennial generation seemed to enjoy wallowing in gloom and doom and misery.

I have not kept this secret from my millennial cohorts who take my opinion good-naturedly, still profess to love me, and keep inviting me to watch their shows—which I have admired but, I confess, not really enjoyed.

Furthermore, aside from being Rep-bred, I have always had, as my daughter Gigi put it in her forward of my memoir, Just Me, “Pollyanna-esque tendencies imbibed by childhood reading.” I look for happy endings, uplifting moments, and sympathetic characters.

Also, I grew used to grand musical productions with grandiose sets, meticulously designed period costumes, live musical accompaniment, and large casts— all which of course disappeared with the onslaught of the pandemic.

However, I recently watched two post-pandemic productions that, I have to admit, changed my mind. Last year, I watched Rep’s Carousel directed by Toff and, just lately, I watched The Sandbox Collective production of Sandbox Fest 2023—two very millennial plays by Duncan Macmillan. Lungs and Every Brilliant Thing were both in small (in the Sandbox Production’s very, very small ) black-box theaters—sans practically any set at all, in contemporary dress (probably culled from actor’s closets), and with casts of two and one.

Justine Peña and Brian Sy in Lungs during Sandbox Fest 2023.

I went to watch Carousel—both skeptical and curious about the modern staging that had been announced. I found myself being drawn in by the clever staging and choreography, the fine acting, and the magnificent playing of the two pianists that made me not miss an orchestra.

The whole production was so not the Rep Carousel of days of yore but it had the same smoothness, pace and quality of a Rep production. It was absorbing. I began to think that perhaps this was the way theater had to go.

When I read who the directors were in the Sandbox Fest 2023 production at the BGC Arts Center, I knew I had to go to watch it. Jenny Jamora, who was directing Every Brilliant Thing, had been my co-star in Mind’s Eye a few years ago and had been in numerous Rep’s Children’s Theater (RCT) and other Rep productions. Caisa Borromeo (another RCT alumna) had been in many Rep productions including Silent Sky which I had directed and I was curious to see her work as the director of Lungs.

I must say that both plays were creatively and effectively directed and staged—making the best use of the tiny space. I was extremely proud of my “youngsters”—fully grown to “millenniality”—and I changed my mind about millennials’ theatrical choices.

The scripts were excellent. Lungs had snappy and funny dialogue and was so cleverly constructed that I wasn’t at all jarred by the fact that it was actually about the sad state of the world, a miscarriage, and a broken relationship. Justine Pena’s grasp of her character, her comprehension of the message and the nuances hidden in her lines, and her delivery were perfect. Justine had also appeared a production of Rep’s Theater for Young Audiences.

The same for Every Brilliant Thing. I’m not sure what lines Duncan Macmillan had written and what were Kakki’s ad-libs—so good was she at improvisation and at drawing her audience into the play. It was the highest standard of audience participation (RTYA term) that I had ever seen.

She was hilarious. I hardly even noticed that the play dwelt on mental illness and suicide until I was walking home from the theater and had a chance to think about it. And Kakki is also a Rep alumna.

I missed seeing Reb Atedero—also a Rep actor—in Lungs but was very happy with Brian Sy’s performance. I was very glad I went.

Not to say, however, that I am eschewing the grand, Broadway-circa-last-half-of-the 20th century-My Fair Lady-Annie-type musicals. I still miss them. I still want to enjoy them.

I also cannot completely outgrow my Pollyanna-esque tendencies. Therefore I continue to produce, albeit for the Theater For Young Audiences, the happy-ever-after musicals—that is, fairy tales, with all the “bells and whistles” I can afford.

Case in point: I am directing and we have started rehearsals for Snow White and the Prince —a somewhat different take on that classic story of all time. I have a great cast—some young, some old, some Rep veterans, some “newbies.” There is never a lack of singers and actors who can (or can learn to) act, sing and dance.

It opens on Sept. 16. And, who knows? Sometime or other in the future, if theater producers like Toff continue to pursue their passion, you may see them shine in plays like Lungs and Every Brilliant Thing.